By on August 8, 2011

Though the next-generation of Mazda’s rotary engine has been in development since 2007, and has been the subject of several TTAC Wild-Ass Rumors, WardsAuto reports that the unique engine design could well be reaching the end of its life.

Kiyoshi Fujiwara, Mazda executive officer-product planning and powertrain development, says there is “huge discussion” within the Hiroshima, Japan-based company whether to continue on with a rotary engine.

Fujiwara says economic hardship has some top brass looking for programs to cut, and that the engine program is on the list.

Continuing development of the rotary has been halted for now, but he hopes it will resume in the future, noting the technology is a part of Mazda’s DNA.

Without identifying what exactly they are, Fujiwara says three major problems were identified with the current generation of rotary engine, but that two of the three have been overcome. Still, Mazda says that only one thing will save the rotary engine at this point: success with Mazda’s new suite of SKYACTIV technologies. If these fuel-saving measures spark new interest in the Mazda brand, says Fujiwara, then Mazda might have enough cash to invest in its rotary engine. Alternatively, a Mazda-developed Wankel engine could be used as an electric range-extender. In any case, don’t expect a new Mazda rotary before 2017… if ever. Here’s hoping Mazda is able to keep this unique, distinctive drivetrain alive for future generations of enthusiast drivers.

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36 Comments on “Mazda Halts Rotary Engine Development: Is 2011 Your Last Chance To Wankel?...”

  • avatar
    Brian E

    If Mazda has to make a hard choice here, it should be to prioritize the technology that will benefit the most customers. The SKYACTIV platform is really something exciting for enthusiasts who want lighter weight cars with efficient performance. Mazda will not lose its soul for making that choice.

  • avatar

    I’ve always had a soft spot for the uniqueness and power/weight of the rotary. Putting it on hold is probably the right call for now though. They need to focus on their core line-up, and fuel-efficiency is a major issue these days, and one of the rotary’s weakest points.

    It’s just hard for one small company to go solo and develop an entirely new type of engine that can keep up with all the development in the rest of the industry, which is ALL focused on piston engines.

    That said, I think a range-extender would be the killer app for a rotary. Ideally, range extenders would be used seldom- just the occasional road trip. Therefore, things like reliability, fuel consumption, low-end torque, etc. would take a back seat to compactness and power/weight ratio, not to mention smoothness at steady, high rpm. It’ll be dead-weight most of the time so the more you can reduce it, the more you can reduce your electric motor size, and the more you can reduce your battery size and maximize your electricity efficiency.

    The rotary was a noble effort, and maybe when they get their core line in order they can bring back a hard-core, light weight rotary sports car like the 3rd gen RX-7, or possibly a super high performance version of the Miata. That’d be a sweet combo- always wondered why they never offered it.

    • 0 avatar

      i disagree that the range extender’s efficency is not important. not without reason all people critisize the Volt’s “real world” mileage, which is mediocre at around 30 mpg.

      People will realize that a plug-in hybrid or EV with range extender (what is the difference anyway, besides focus on EV or IC?) uses the gasoline engine quite a lot. At least more than to get by with a 30 mpg version.

      Maybe the Wankel motor has a sweet spot load/rpm which would make it better suited for a generator (= range extender) that only runs at constant rpm. so it might excel as range extender and do what it couldn’t do when attached to a transmission.

      • 0 avatar

        If we’re really thinking about adapting the Wankel for use as a generator, we may as well go right to a small turbine. Fewer moving parts, most likely lighter and even smaller (although a Wankel is pretty tiny). I’d even hazard a guess that emissions from the turbine would be easier to regulate, and if properly done, could burn any fuel available.

        It seems to me there’s a reason why other larger more technologically astute companies gave up on their Wankel programs. I can appreciate running with an idea, but this seems to be a big distraction.

      • 0 avatar

        That’s just because the Volt’s electric-legs are so short that the gas engine has to be used fairly regularly. The less it’s needed, the less important it’s efficiency becomes.

        The Volt is just a first scratch at a range-extended EV. One of the reasons it gets bad mpg is because it uses a big, heavy piston engine with seperate generator, requiring bigger motors and batteries.

        A range extended EV with a, say, 65 mile range in NORMAL USE (including heater/AC use) would not need to run the motor much. The reduced weight would also help make up for the thermal efficiency.

        I also think they should do away with the seperate generator. It’s a waste of size, weight, and cost. The range extender will mostly be used on the highway, so gearing the engine directly to the wheels (and I’m thinking a <45 hp motor here), or run it more like a normal hybrid, with the engine helping to turn the motor directly, so power can pass straight through when needed, with any excess being stored. Stale fuel would be a bigger concern than range, so you'd also reduce weight and size by speccing a small tank- maybe enough for 175 miles of gas-powered operation (240 mile total range)

        Such a setup may only run 20% of the time or so for an average person, so mpg wouldn't be that important: the reduced cost and increased electric range would be.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I too am attracted to Mazda’s rotary as a technological idea and I can even deal with the engineered in oil consumption – the power/mpg thing seems like a deal breaker to me. I can deal with the fuel economy if there is more hp there.

    • 0 avatar

      Poor power/mpg seems like a major stumbling block for a brand in Mazda’s price bracket, but in very pricey exotics, power/(weight and size) is, in practice, a bigger issue. Those huge 12s do little for handling dynamics, even though they do look and sound cool. And they put major constraints on cars’ proportions.

      Don’t know enough about the Wankel to have an idea if it’s feasible, but I would love to see some 800+hp hyperexotic with a 10,000rpm redline and an engine less than half the weight of the current monsters; compact enough to fit right where it needs to be for handling dynamics without compromising the cockpit.

      • 0 avatar

        Certainly possible. Well…sort of possible. The furai (link) is a 3 rotor engine (R20b engine) that puts out 450hp.

        The 787B (link) had a 4 rotor engine (R26B engine) had 700hp (scaled back from 950hp for the 24 hour of le mans race) rev limit of 10k rpm (also scaled back)

        I’m fairly certain however that neither of these would pass emission standards.

  • avatar

    This may be the most prudent decision. Mazda nearly went out of business in the 70’s (and Ford rescued them) because much of their line used Wankels – and in the first gas embargo – MPG was of paramount concern to the buying public.

  • avatar

    Without a rotary to offer, Mazda is like Jeep without 4WD. It is what defined Mazda. See that logo? That is a rotary.

    There is a reason why Mazda kept that engine around for forty years. Ending it’s production is losing legacy and heritage.

    • 0 avatar

      that is not a fair comparison. Losing 4WD would mean losing all off-road capability that a Jeep has.

      What do yo mean by logo and Wankel? What i see are wings… like in being as fast as flying.

      the engine is just a black box to most people with certain reliability/power/efficiency/weight/torque specs that are important. Especially since the Wankel only was used in cars sold in small numbers, no one besides those few buyers will care.

      no one buys a Mazda 2/3/5/6 because the RX8 has a Wankel. Actually most people buying an RX-8 would rather use a piston engine if they need it as a daily driver, based on its reliability.

      If they put all the Wankel resources in piston/hybrid drive trains, they actually make all their cars more attractive. Mileage is one of the Achilles heels of Mazda, even in their pistons.

  • avatar

    I have mixed feelings about this and about the Wankel engine. The Wankel had always been problematic. Maybe the rotary isn’t well-suited to an automotive application – perhaps a stationary-speed application would be more appropriate?

    Piston engines may indeed go “boing, boing, boing…”, but I go “Hmmm…” if I ever were to buy one – well, I won’t – a Wankel engined car, that is.

    It appears that the standard I.C.E. is the best power plant to propel vehicles due to its versatility. No other I.C.E. comes close, as far as gasoline or diesel power goes.

    Mazda needs to find a market, ’cause they are clearly in trouble, and scarce research dollars must be applied elsewhere. Right now, Mazda just needs to find out if they can survive. Perhaps a merger with Mitsubishi and Subaru would work?

    • 0 avatar

      Poor Subaru has enough trouble without adding Mitsubishi to the mix.

      Never owned a Mazda but I have always respected the brand, and gave the 3 a very close look when helping someone shop for a car recently. I also often think about getting an old Miata for a weekender.
      I hope Mazda can survive. Even without the rotary engine, the auto world is better for having Mazda in it.

  • avatar

    The savior of the rotary and unique products is a solid base of sales in the bread and butter department. Given the circumstances, it’s too much to ask to try to make a rotary as efficient as an Otto engine given limited resources. Having the rotary as a halo product only works if you can make the connection to the bread and butter as well. I think this is what really ended the run for the RX-7… I can’t make the connection between it and the 626 and 323 of it’s time. At least with the Rx-8, you can appreciate that the design language made it’s way into the CX-7 and beyond, but it’s still hard to tie in the engineering relevance. Hope they make it work, though.

    • 0 avatar

      I disagree. Could you find a connection between a 370z and an altima or a leaf? no. I don’t think the point is to say “hey, we have this car and all our other cars are like this car!” But rather as the same purpose as advertising. The RX-8 (and rx cars in general) don’t have much connection to say a mazda3, mazda5, cx-7, etc. You could say that mazda’s are “fun to drive” and the rx cars promote that line but more importantly it keeps mazda’s name in the forefront of people’s minds.

      Consider how much news is ever generated about the mazda3, mazda’s highest seller. Not much. Only when a new model year comes out or injunction with new tech (like skyactiv tech). On the other hand, the rx-, mazda’s slowest seller, generates a huge amount of press and discussion, which is very good for mazda.

      • 0 avatar

        > Could you find a connection between a 370z and an altima or a leaf?

        Funny example. Nissan famously ran this commercial /after/ the 300Z was canceled:

        My memory was that dealers hated it because as a ‘brand’ building exercise, it did nothing to move cars off the lot. As I understand it, the history of branding is rife with examples of emotional halo building, but that the most successful are the ones that concretely tie back to sales. (It’s not advertising if people aren’t buying stuff.)

      • 0 avatar

        As I understand it, the history of branding is rife with examples of emotional halo building

        That’s kind of my point. At most you’ll ever get from a rx car is that it promotes the “fun to drive” essence that is supposed to permeate through the mazda lineup.

        Advertising is only successful when people think of the brand while they’re shopping (and obviously if/when people buy that brand). Whether a company decides to try and make a connection between their halo car and the rest of their fleet OR by directly advertising their moneymaker, the same idea is to keep the brand/model in the forefront of people’s minds while they shop.

        Free advertising, like in the form of lots of news articles(not reviews) is at best a great thing and at worst a neutral thing. rx cars certainly achieve that. Reviews of products obviously can be good or bad depending on the review.

        With the exception of reviews, they all achieve the same purpose.

  • avatar

    Interesting news, coming on the heels of Audi’s admission that they too are working on Wankels for use as range extenders in future electric vehicles. Perhaps rotary development is not ending, just returning to its roots (NSU, from whom Audi is descended, employed Felix Wankel and built the very first rotary-engined cars).

  • avatar

    I always laugh/cry when I see it implied that the use of a Wankel as a range extender/battery charger is somehow a legitimate way to extend the Wankel’s legacy. That’s like extending the legacy of a thoroughbred race horse by hooking it up to a plow. Sorry, but as a confirmed rotorhead, I will not be buying such a vehicle just because there is a Wankel buried in there somewhere.

    • 0 avatar

      Well, biting one’s nose off to spite one’s face does have a long tradition in the human race :-)

      IMO Wankels make a lot more sense as range extenders than as primary power sources. The Audi unit, a single-rotor design, takes up less than a cubic foot of space (it fits under the luggage floor in the back), is quiet and smooth (naturally) … and in this application can be run at higher RPMs than in a Mazda (at higher revs its fuel economy is more comparable to similar-output piston engines).

      As a former RX-7 owner myself, I am keeping an open mind about this development.

  • avatar

    As for miles per gallon, my 2007 MazdaSpeed 3 got excellent Interstate mileage once it was broken in. The best I ever got was 37 mpg for a 360 mile round trip (98% Interstate). Yes, I hypermiled it not going over 65 at any time. Usually, I could get 31 on the highway under normal driving conditions.

    • 0 avatar

      Similarly, I recently got 36 mpg out of my 2010 Mazda3 on a 1000 mile trip — mostly highway. No hyper-miling needed. The sedan had 3 passengers, a full trunk, the A/C running, and was probably averaging 70 mph.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve gotten 35 mpg over 270 mountainious miles in my chipped 335i (with a total of about 3000′ of elevation loss), and that includes several passes where I went over 100 mph.

      But, those numbers aren’t very typical for either a 335i or MazdaSpeed 3. Compared to a lot of cars out there now, they’re gas-hogs for their size.

      • 0 avatar

        >>and that includes several passes where I went over 100 mph.

        Shhh… make that you *might have* gone over 100 mph. ;)

        True, these aren’t typical numbers. With these vehicles, the tradeoff is being fun-to-drive. For me, a present day car that balances fun with fuel efficiency needs to get city mileage above 20 mpg and highway mileage above 30 mpg.

        BTW, at least with the Mazda3, my engine is PZEV, so it’s almost as clean as a hybrid with regard to emissions. The car is fun and green.

  • avatar

    This is a very sad development for gearheads everywhere, regardless of how you feel about rotary engines. The car world was a much more interesting place with wankel engines in it.

    Wankels are not for everyone (though it always seemed to me that a lot of the carping about low torque, gas mileage, and oil use – all absolutely true with wankels – came from people who have never actually owned, or maybe even driven one. Formula 1 cars don’t have much low-end torque either, but I doubt anyone would complain that they’re not fun to drive). I’ve owned 3 rotary cars (a couple of RX-8’s and a RX-4) and a rotary motorcycle (Suzuki RE-5), and have absolutely loved all of them. They are absolutely addictive.

    My current daily driver is a RX-8. If your idea of “sports” car is foot to the floor straight-line drag racing and an automatic transmission, it’s definitely not the car for you. But, if your dream drive is a curvy road with decreasing radius turns, switchbacks, flicking a stubby little shifter through the gears, and weekend track days, it’s hard to match a rotary for the visceral thrill of hearing it wind up to 9000 rpm. The smoothness, the low center of gravity possible with a wankel, the way the car feels directly hard-wired into your central nervous system, connecting you with the road in a way few other cars (at least at this price point) can do… everyone should miss its passing. To me, Mazda’s wankels have always embodied the spirit of “jinba ittai”, the motto of ‘horse and rider as one’, even better than the Miata (had a couple of them too). It feels “special” every time I drive it. A daily commute to work becomes a little treat in the morning and the end of the day because of the car.

    The wankel is a victim not just of its eccentricities, but the deteriorating world economy. When things are going well, specialized cars like the RX-8 can carve out a niche with fringe buyers. But, in tough economic times when most people (and companies) are paralyzed with hand-wringing anxiety, conservatism rules. Companies target the lowest common denominators, don’t want to take risks, Camry’s and Elantra’s sell, and there isn’t much extra toy money to go around for small markets – like, cars with wankels. The same thing happened with the late, lamented Honda S2000 (my other car)….

    Mazda should be commended for having the guts to have stuck with the rotary engine for 40+ years. I think it was also a wise strategic move on their part. Without the rotary, Mazda might have been just another second-tier Japanese player, another Subaru, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, etc. They had the vision and balls to see that they had to distinguish themselves, which they did wonderfully with both the rotary cars, and the Miata.

    Let’s all toast Mazda for having the guts to do what few big companies can, and hope that more enthusiast cars like the RX-7/RX-8 and S2000 don’t follow them into becoming mere memories…

  • avatar

    So does this mean the next RX7 / RX8 is also delayed? In which case can we have an new MX6 but rear wheel drive 4 seater coupe hatchback with an efficient SkyActiv turbo engine????

    • 0 avatar

      I wouldn’t mind that at all. If the Wankel and the RX series is being put in a closet until the time is right again, that only leaves the MX-5 as the shining beacon of Mazda’s motorsport heritage. Don’t leave it the lone survivor, bring back a few old friends like the MX-3 and MX-6. If you don’t want to do that, why not take the Mazda 2 and make an MX-2? Or a MazdaSpeed 2? Doubtless those cars can still bring in some money and make the product line more interesting. Now that you’re free from Ford, here’s a great chance to capitalize on making yourself truly independent, truly unique and showcase what SKYACTIV can do!

  • avatar

    Before I make this post I should point out I’m a huge wankel fan so take my musings with huge block of salt. That having been said…

    Why would they stop development now? It doesn’t make much sense. Right now they’re finishing up the last bit of Skyactiv development and now are rolling them out into their main fleet. Which means most of the cost/resources have already been incurred. It made sense to have a greatly reduced budget a couple years ago as the bulk of the skyactiv research was going on but now?

    All that’s left on their plate is obviously production of the skyactiv, the ND mx-5, the next rx car, and whatever the next new tech for the main fleet will be after the skyactiv tech.

    As far as the tight budget is concerned…what else are they doing on the R/D side? It seemed like the referenced article is saying that the wankel is taking a back seat to nothing.

  • avatar

    Mazda, without Ford’s purchasing power backing them (and I wonder how much of the skyactive engines are eco-boost engines with a different name and a few more goodies added on), Mazda isn’t going to make it without a partner. Weak in the US, weak in Europe, weak in Japan, suzuki was smart enough to realize they couldn’t play with the big boys along time ago and claimed India (1.5 billion poor people still means there’s a few hundred million who can purchase cars). That’s who they should try and merge with (unless VW wants to give it a go in Japan, but Japan is a dying country demographically wise, I doubt they would make the investment).

    • 0 avatar

      The simple answer to the first part is zero. The skyactiv line doesn’t incorporate turbochargers (aka “ecoboost”) with the exception of their skyactiv-D (diesel) engines but their old diesel engines always had turbochargers.

      Mazda has said that ford has played no roll (financially or otherwise) in the development of the skyactiv line, and consequently won’t have access to it.

  • avatar

    The rotary engine has been used in generators, snowmobiles, motorcycles, cars, trucks, airplanes and who knows what else.

    And it seems that as of today, only the Mazda RX-8 is still available with it wherein it sells in any quantity.

    Most car shoppers know nothing about it and couldn’t care otherwise.

    It has always been an enthusiast’s delight and has only really made its place in the world by powering light sports cars.

    And with the increasing sophistication of electronics, no doubt more strides can be made in better economy and fewer emissions.

    But this will be true across the spectrum of all I.C.E.’s, and since the rotary has similar operating and power characteristics to the two-stroke piston engine, maybe if Mazda decides to dump the Wankle but still needs an ace to attach to their name they could try to resurrect the public image of the good ol’ “corn-popper”.

    But this may not be as outlandish as it seems.

    Once ubiquitous in the small motorbike world, It is strange that the two-stroke was originally banned because of noise and smoke issues, but now it has made more than a comeback, and they are now far more common than ever, by their use in obscenely loud, powered lawn equipment and in the new kind of plasticky, puny putt-putt type of motorscooters.

    A few cars have used two-strokes in the past – most notably Saab and, more recently, the smoky, smelly, trashy Trabant – and so maybe if Mazda sends the Wankle out to pasture they could then pick up the mantle and tech-up the two-stroke for automotive use once again, in a new and higher calling, in keeping with the company’s own somewhat romantic engineering ideal of doing something difficult just to do it, even when there is really little to be gained by doing so over standard procedures, much in the manner of the rotary.

    Whether any such new technology would be more expensive than continuing with the Wankle is the key issue; but they already tried to branch out not too long ago with the short-lived and seemingly unnecessary updating of the old Miller Cycle cylinder heads.

    Of course, if Mazda’s nixing of the Wankle is done on purely economic grounds then any such argument is moot; but I too agree that the rotary has always been Mazda’s ‘hook’, and if it were not for it and the Miata, just what would Mazda be, anyway. . . ?

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Have a nice send off party and decommission the Wankel. The only thing it has going for it is a power-to-weight advantage over piston engines, and that advantage is shrinking. Meanwhile, Mazda can ill afford to put development resources into a one-model low volume technological curiosity. Mazda is going to have enough trouble being competitive which the big boys and hasn’t a person or Yen to spare on sentimental engineering projects.

    Back in the 1970s it was dedication to the Wankel engine and its low fuel economy, spotty reliability, emission control difficulties and high production costs that pushed Mazda into Ford’s arms in the first place.

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